As an unfriendly neighbour, Belarus a thorn in Russia's side

Leader of tiny nation unlikely to be unseated in upcoming election

By David Marples

The political perspective from Moscow today can be crystallized in a single dictum: We need friendly neighbours who will follow our advice at all times.

Such a policy has meant that the dual regime of Putin-Medvedev (or Medvedev-Putin) can never accept the status quo or limit its activities to the confines of the Russian Federation. This fact is not as outrageous as it may seem. During the Cold War both the U.S. and the Soviet Union operated on a global scale to counter the other's influence. The Americans have withdrawn somewhat of late, but remain a military superpower. Russia is slowly responding.

Russia's policy is well illustrated by the events since 2004. In Ukraine, an Orange Revolution brought to power a president who wished to extract Ukraine from the Russian orbit and turn it toward Europe. For five years, Moscow worked to undermine the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko through a sustained propaganda campaign. In 2010, when Viktor Yanukovych was elected, that mission was considered accomplished. Ukraine became a friendly power, if not a totally compliant one.

A more militant policy was applied toward the smaller Georgia, where Russia openly supported the aspirations of two regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, for independence, culminating in a brief but bloody war in which the Georgian army was quickly defeated by the much larger Russian one in August 2008. In contrast to Ukraine, however, the incumbent president, Mikheil Saakashvili, remained in power. Nevertheless, he had been severely weakened.

Today, Russia has a new problem in the shape of the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka, who will face a new election on Dec. 19 to seek a fourth term in office. Ironically, Lukashenka was initially the most pro-Russian leader in Eastern Europe. But he has fallen foul of Moscow, which has virtually disbanded the Russia-Belarus Union, originally established in 1997.

It is not easy to say precisely how this occurred, but from the Kremlin perspective, Lukashenka has become a tiresome partner who has consistently refused to follow instructions. Though he is a Russian speaker who considers Russians and Belarusians to be one community, he has adopted a new role: protector of Belarus from incursions by Russia.

This quest for complete independence follows conflicts over the prices for oil and gas imports, and Belarus' reluctance to be dragged into various forms of military-security agreements with Russia. The Russian media has replaced Yushchenko as the bete noire of the region with the 56-year old Belarusian leader.

The onset of a new presidential election campaign is always a tense period in Belarus, a small central European state on the EU border. This year the procedure has followed a familiar pattern: Lukashenka denounces his opponents, holds a congress of selected delegates, before gathering signatures (100,000 are needed to run) through a carefully controlled system that requires workers to register their support of the president before they can pick up their wage packets.

This year, 17 candidates have entered at the initial stage, mostly from opposition parties and groups. Perhaps a few have a realistic chance of making it to Dec. 19. They include Lukashenko, Syarhey Haidukevich, the president's ally from the Liberal Democratic Party, Andrei Sannikau, the co-ordinator of the European Belarus campaign, and Uladzimir Neklayeu, a well-known poet and writer.

Sannikau was one of the co-ordinators of a website called Charter-97 -- modelled on the Czechoslovak variant of two decades earlier -- an irreverent and often controversial anti-presidential site. One month ago, the editor of the site, Aleh Byabenin, was found hanged at his country house, despite having made arrangements to meet several friends that same evening. Sannikau, a diplomat by training, dismissed the official verdict of suicide.

Belarusian television maligns Neklayeu as a Russian puppet, who has received funds from Moscow. Neklayeu's own explanation is that the monies derive from Belarusian businessmen living in Russia.

As the election date approaches, opposition candidates can expect more harassment, detentions and arrests. This time, however, Lukashenka lacks support from Moscow, which has denounced him through documentary films and news bulletins, culminating in a public attack Monday by Medvedev.

The difficulty for Russia -- it is also one that continues to frustrate the EU, which deals with Belarus through its Eastern Partnership program -- is that unless the rules change, no candidate has any chance of unseating Lukashenka. Each candidate who can collect 100,000 signatures will get one hour on television. That's just not enough time to counter five years of propaganda and repressions aimed at the opposition in the interim.

Moscow, therefore, is likely to remain frustrated. The democratic if fumbling Yushchenko has departed, Georgia has been carved up into component parts, but the hard-line leader in Belarus remains in place, illustrating that for all its economic clout, Russia is sometimes a feeble player at the regional level.

David Marples is a professor of his-tor y at the University of Alberta.


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